Turn on the Taps: Virtual Virginia International Tattoo Pandemic Edition

Words By Penny Neef
Images courtesy of Virginia Arts Festival

One of the highlights of the Virginia Arts Festival each year is the Virginia International Tattoo. I am not the most patriotic person, but there is nothing like this over the top, bagpipe music to the ceiling of the Scope, giant American flag waving salute, to make you feel like the USA has always been a great country.  

Scott Jackson and his mighty team put together a spectacular show each year. Military bands come to Norfolk from around the world. It is a cast of thousands. It takes a whole year to bring together all these talented musicians, singers, and dancers into a show that is guaranteed to give you goosebumps.

Top Secret Drum Line at the 2016 Virginia International Tattoo

There is no traveling this year. There cannot be thousands of performers on the floor of the Scope Arena or thousands of people watching at the Scope. The Virginia International Tattoo live performances have been canceled, along with the rest of the Virginia Arts Festival for this spring.

This is still “Tattoo Week”. Like the rest of the world, the Virginia International Tattoo has gone virtual, all except the beer. You can still enjoy a Tattoo themed beer. More on that in a bit.

A drill team throws their rifles at the 2016 Virginia International Tattoo.

Through social media and your TV, here are a few of the ways you can experience the Virginia International Tattoo- all for free this year:

Thursday, April 30
Celebrate a salute to WW II veterans with the Opening Night Celebration
7:30pm on Facebook 

Friday, May 1
WHRO 15 will broadcast the 2016 Tattoo – check your local listings
8:30pm Preshow Watch Party on Facebook 
9:00pm 2016 Tattoo on WHRO

Saturday, May 2
Virtual Salute to the Greatest Generation – the Tattoo will honor WWII veterans with a special appearance by journalist Joe Galloway
10:00pm Watch Party on Facebook 

Sunday, May 3
March Off – The Parting Glass and Final March Off
5:00pm Watch Party on Facebook 

The Virginia International Tattoo also does a Special Audience Night each year for people with disabilities and special needs that might need some extra space or room to walk around during the show. Special Audience Night was inspired by Scott Jackson’s daughter, Samantha, who is autistic. Her favorite part of the show is always those hundreds of bagpipers. Jackson put together this video for Samantha and her friends.

Now about that beer – long before coronavirus rocked our world, VAF collaborated with Rip Rap Brewing Company to produce a beer in honor of the 2020 Virginia International Tattoo and the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII.  Rip Rap has both a pick-up and delivery service, and says the beer’s “soft wheat and lightly toasted malt add subtle depth to this classic style”.  For more information about how you can toast to the Greatest Generation with a glass or two of 1945 Salute beer, click here

Rip Rap Brewing Company's 1945 Salute Beer.

Virginia Arts Festival Executive Director Rob Cross understands the need for social distancing during this time. He is disappointed that the VAF has had to cancel some of the world’s great artists this spring. “We wanted to offer our audiences the opportunity to share some past performances in their homes as they shelter in place. In this time, we need the joy and hope and inspiration the arts provide.” For a complete list of all the VAF’s virtual performances, go to their Virtual Connections page.

For a complete list of all the virtual Tattoo events this year, check out their facebook!

New Local Theater Company- Wisdom Heart Theater Presents Hamlet with Clay Jenkinson

Words by Aliki (Aly) Marie Pantas Semones.
Photos as noted in captions.

If anyone can commiserate about the struggles of opening a business just before a global pandemic hits, it’s those of us here at Spotlight News. Turns out, we’re not alone! A new theater company has opened in the Hampton Roads community and will have its first performance this Saturday. 

Wisdom Heart Theater was founded by Paul Lasakow. He and Staci Murawski are both artistic partners. The mission statement from their website describes the theater as “a fully collaborative theater focused on contemporary works that explore the range of human relationships. Centered on the actor and performing in small alternative spaces, it seeks a rich and intimate theatrical realism.” 

Paul Laskow and Staci Murowski's headshots
Photos courtesy of Paul Laskow and Staci Murawski.

Lasakow drew inspiration  for the theater company’s name from Zen Buddhism and the “Wisdom Heart Sutra,” which is chanted before daily practice in Zendos world wide. “It describes the tenets of Zen: being and nothingness, action and inaction, sound and silence are all the same. I find that applies to and actually creates much of the magic of live theater.  At once, there is an actor on the stage but also that actor is another person entirely. Their emotions are real and yet simultaneously illusory. The audience can know that they are in a theater yet also exist in the world of the play,” Lasakow explained. 

Their first production will be a staged reading of an abridged version of Hamlet, starring Clay Jenkinson. It will be livestreamed on Wisdom Heart Theater’s Facebook page this Saturday, April 25, 2020 at 8 pm. Lasakow & Murawski will be co-directing.

Lasakow came up with the concept of this theater company because he has “been fascinated with a small venue theater for a number of years.” He finds the relationship with the audience in a small venue compelling as an artist.

“The actors don’t have to use their skills to get the message so far out into the distance. Instead they can concentrate on character, bringing it back in. There are compromises that one must make while projecting out to the balcony that are not necessary if the audience is only a few feet away. It’s exactly like film acting, but obviously it’s a live theater. There’s realism one can attain in that method.  You can’t really attain it in any other kind of theatrical setting. That’s the kind of work I, as an actor, am most interested in. It was very little opportunity to do that around here, so I decided to go ahead and create an opportunity for others to do that.”

Staci Murawski was introduced to Paul through a mutual friend.  Staci also wanted to create theater like Paul envisioned. They began to audition for their first production, “we were getting a lot of energy, getting very psyched about that, buying rights, looking at venues… when… you know, that happened,” said Lasakow. Despite the let down, Lasakow & Murawski kept the excitement and momentum going and found a way to create online. “Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and all we want to do is create good theater in any way we can,” said Lasakow. They decided on doing a reader’s theater- a style of theater in which the actors present dramatic readings using only vocal expression to help the audience understand the story. 

Clay Jenkinson and Paul Laskow in a stage performance including a scene from Hamlet
Photo by David Polston Freelance.

Clay Jenkinson, known for The Thomas Jefferson Hour, has a lifelong dream of playing Hamlet.  Lasakow knew this because of his long relationship with Jenkinson, including partnering together on projects, so Paul offered Clay an opportunity to play his dream role. Jenkinson has a passion for Shakespeare. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, he studied Elizabethan Literature. “I’ve never seen a middle aged man in tights have groupies pursue him,” Lasakow said, referring to a show Jenkinson calls Shakespeare: The Magic of the Word . In this 90 minute performance, Jenkinson includes the iconic graveyard scene from Hamlet. Jenkinson plays Hamlet and Lasakow the gravedigger. Lasakow said “[Jenkinson’s] completely enamored with Shakespeare’s work. Even though he’s, as he would say, closer to Lear’s age than Hamlet’s – this is reader’s theater! We got artistic license and the man is amazing because he understands the text so deeply.  Clay’s understanding of Shakespearean text is really second to no ones.”

Jenkinson released a video on his Facebook page on April 18, 2020 announcing that he will be finally living out his “lifelong dream” in playing Hamlet, albeit a “shortened version.” Clay said he realized that Hamlet is “a young man’s game. Hamlet is an adolescent with adolescent angst about the world, but It’s been one of the great dreams of my life and now I get to do it. I have the joy of working with my friend Paul Lasakow.”  Jenkinson went on to say in the video that “it’s an extraordinary thing to do in this time of pandemic. We’re all together at home, alone together.”

Clay Jenkinson stands behind a mic staring at Yoric, the skull.
Photo by David Polston Freelance.

While the timing of things has been difficult, Wisdom Heart Theater is certainly making the most of it. They have a strong cast including some from other states. “These are actors that are highly skilled and highly experienced, but maybe not actors that we would be able to use at all times because they’re highly skilled and experienced, so they’re working,” Murawski said. Lasakow added, “we have a variety of highly experienced actors in the company, many of whom have performed nationally, [and] internationally. We’re all theatrical professionals in one way or the other.” The rest of the cast includes: Laura Agudelo, Christopher Bernhardt, Edwin Castillo, Ryan Clemens, Matt Friedman, Paul Lasakow, Phillip Martin, Chris Mixon, Courtney Richard and David Sinrich. Zoë Murawski, Broadcast Technician, will be handling all technical aspects of the streamed performance, including: mics, camera, and title cards for the characters, because the actors play multiple roles. The actors will also have some costumes. Run time for the show is approximately 1 hour 20 minutes.  

“We’ll see you on Facebook. This should be great fun!” Jenkinson said at the conclusion of his video.

Tune in tomorrow, April 25, 2020 at 8 pm to see Clay Jenkinson & the cast of Hamlet on  Wisdom Heart Theater’s Facebook page.

The Friend Jam – A Virtual Festival with Music, Gaming, Comedy, Poetry, Created by Skye Zentz

Words by Aliki (Aly) Marie Pantas Semones.
Photos courtesy of Skye Zentz.

Meet Skye Zentz: singer, songwriter, producer & music educator.  She would also describe herself as “a mega sensitive Hufflepuff, proudly embracing her weirdness and working to adapt and evolve whenever possible!” She is also the “ultimate extrovert” and an Aries. I have to agree that Skye is absolutely incredibly passionate, motivated,  and she truly builds our community with her very cheerful disposition! (remember when she did this song for Norfolk called “The Tide” and this one for Naro Video?!) It’s no surprise to me that she came up with not only a way for her to celebrate her birthday with her friends, but to share her friends’ art with anyone who tuned in to a festival that she calls “The Friend Jam”.

During this weird time, everyone is finding new and creative ways to celebrate with friends and family in a healthy & safe way. Some people are doing virtual group video parties, some are doing drive-by parades. Skye decided that despite being shut down one week before her birthday, she was still going to celebrate with her friends! Needles to say, when she was told for her birthday “#1: I can’t go anywhere, but #2: I also can’t hug my friends [it] was very very weird for [her]”. 

Skye Zentz playing a stringed instrument.

When I asked Skye what inspired her to create The Friend Jam, she said  “I knew early on that with the shutdown I wasn’t going to be able to go anywhere and do any work. I wasn’t going to be able to go to The Muse where I teach, see people out in the world. I knew that I needed something to stay busy with and to work on. Also I knew that so many of my friends in the creative community were losing all of their work for the foreseeable future. So, what is a way that A: I can have something to work on, B: I can still see my friends on my birthday, and C: I can put some money into my friends’ Venmos and PayPals from the music community that’ll want to get out and see entertainment.“ 

She describes it as a three fold thing. First she thought about a facebook livestream, but she wanted to see people as well. Then she considered that she would “invite a few friends, we would all do things”. Suddenly she realized that she had “a lot of friends to ask! I know a lot of amazing, talented people! So I just, you know, I started sending messages to people.” She received a lot of positive responses – so many, that it made her decide “well, this is gonna have to be a festival!” 

Next, she had to decide the logistics of everything – “where it all happened.” Zentz decided since so many people are out of work and are at home with nothing to do so everyone’s on their computers, going virtual was the key. Everyone plays from the “stage” of their own page/ profile, but, the lineup is posted in one place, with links directing viewers where to go to see each artist. Instead of having an emcee, the previous act introduces the next act, along with the info on where to watch them.

Her first “The Friend Jam” was on March 28.  It was filled with music, comedy & poetry from the East Coast and beyond. She decided to do a second one this Saturday, April 25, called “The Friend Jam 2.0”. This one will be all new acts (except for one: Southern Charm Comedy). Skye will again open and close the festival. Last time she created a theme song for the festival with the audience at her wrap party- you can check out the first video here so you are familiar with the song for Saturday!

Zentz brought in a 4th component for the second festival that she is “really excited about because [there will be] a live role playing game” that her husband, Gabriel Robinson will be running. “So the world gets to see me and my husband be our nerdy selves, and gets to watch me act for the first time in a very long time.” Skye, Akie Bermiss from New York, and Logan McNeive from Indiana will be playing, and Gabriel will be the Game Master.  The game will  have a buddy-comedy-fantasy sort of vibe to keep with the friend jam theme. It will be played live from 2:30-5pm here.  When asked “what inspired her to add this?” she replied “When I’m thinking of who are my friends, my husband is the best of my friends. He’s been doing a lot of cool writing stuff [for role playing games]. And in quarantine, we have been playing a lot of role playing games online.”

The Friend Jam 2.0 Lineup. This can also be found on their Facebook page.

Some other acts at the festival include: Ally Klayr Tarwater with a fun singalong that is designed to get kids singing and dancing (12-12:30pm), and Ann Gray, who is one of Skye’s students (12:30 pm-1pm)- she is the youngest participant at 13 years old. Also participating, The Heart Stompers, (formerly known as Gina Dalmas and the Cow Tippin’ Playboys), an Alt-Country band and recipient of Veer Magazine’s Best Country artist from 2012-2017; Zentz’s cousin Tyler Warnalis, a DJ and musician that goes by the name Tmobyle; and The Mammals, with members Ruthy & Mike. Mike was Skye’s songwriting teacher at age 19 and was the first person outside of family and public school educators to encourage her as a songwriter. “I look up to him as a songwriter and mentor. In the folk music world, I think so much of what we do is being activists while being artists, and [Mammals] marry those two things really really gracefully.” 

Skye is excited to do a second jam because “the energy of the first one was so great and the response was so great. We’re all shut in together right now, and I think we need little bursts of serotonin. We need little ways to still have something to be excited about or worked up about. What was amazing to me was seeing the engagement level because it wasn’t just people playing concerts and everybody quietly watching. It was people commenting, people seeing that their friends were watching and then talking to their friends in the chat. It was the best kind of virtual amalgamation of what you would want to do at a festival, which is run into people that you know and share your picnic blanket with them.” Thank you, Skye, for helping us find a bit of normalcy in this virtual-only interaction period of time that we are currently in.

Friend Jam is this Saturday, April 25 starting at 11:30am and will end at midnight. You can find the festival lineup here.  Everything will be family friendly until 11 pm. Finally, Skye wants “people to know that it’s a FREE festival to watch and attend, but that tipping the artists as your budget allows is very much encouraged and appreciated. No tip is too small, but do consider what you would pay for a ticket to see this artist live, and keep in mind that they can’t do that at all right now, and they are bringing the concert directly to your living room!”

The Arts have always been important. We need to keep remembering that.

This is me. I’m wearing a mask that a friend made me (thanks, ForgottenCotton- they are on Etsy). This was taken somewhat recently while I was doing one of my contracted gigs that hasn’t been cancelled yet- “regular” cleaning of a local theater. As I recall, I was smiling.

Words and Images by BA Ciccolella.

Every time I start trying to write this article, I am struck by the magnitude of everything that has happened since 2017, both nationally and personally. The sheer anxiety attack of trying to sort through all that is making it really hard to start. At the same time, the driving force in my life for the last decade or so has been my passion for the necessity of the arts in our society. (True story: This is what happens when you tell the high school valedictorian that they can’t take art classes “because you’re an honors student, those are for the kids who aren’t as smart as you”.) 

It’s funny to me that in this weird, apocalyptic point in our lives that I’m even able to look back and see that I probably had a driving force for the last decade, because I can tell you that a little over a month ago I would not have been able to identify that for myself. The first time I remember having an answer for the question of “where do you see yourself in 5 years” was a year ago, and to be honest, I’m pretty certain this pandemic might be quickly changing that answer as well. Luckily, I’m used to heading in the direction the universe leads me (though I would love to be able to see a bit farther down the path).

An empty stage and theater, taken during the last show that BA worked on as a lighting designer before the pandemic, A Tale of Two Cities at Regent University. Luckily, they were able to complete their run.
A photo I took from the last show I worked on before everything hit. A Tale of Two Cities at Regent, luckily for the students, they were able to hold their whole run. I was the lighting designer.

In the last four years, I have helped run a successful House of Delegates campaign, become a full time Legislative Assistant in the House of Delegates, give up both of those projects to pursue my own goals (or pursue my own mental health, I think I’m still uncertain there), joined the Board of Directors for a local community theater company, went back to being a self employed gig worker in the arts (and we all know how that’s going right now). I am supremely lucky to have also started a part time job in a completely non-artistic field that I absolutely love- and that happens to be considered essential still- so for the moment, unlike so many of my colleagues, I do have a paycheck coming in. 

And then about a month ago, just before the pandemic reached the States, I helped co-found this website so that we could have a place to put our theater reviews. The plan was always to expand coverage beyond the theater community, it just so happens that the pandemic forced our hands into expanding quickly. Now would likely be a good time to state that the opinions in this article are mine alone, and have nothing to do with Spotlight News. 

A view of the Chrysler Museum from the footbridge in Norfolk.
A view of the Chrysler Museum from the footbridge in Norfolk.

Four years ago, I wrote a letter that was sent to my Senator, and also published on AltDaily’s website, because the federal government was planning on ending the NEA, and I believed that we need arts funding to be a proper society. Now that we are all stuck at home, I am struck by how important the arts are while everyone tries social distancing. Now that the performing arts have been cancelled, now that museums have closed their doors for our safety, it’s more important than ever that we remind ourselves how important the arts are to our communities and to our economies. Here is the letter which was written and delivered to Senator Warner’s office in April of 2017, and published on AltDaily in June of 2017 (with an introduction that I have omitted here as this introduction is more relevant).

Links added for the article were in the published article but not in the letter, please keep in mind that all numbers quoted are from the time the letter was written.

I moved to Hampton Roads, Virginia because a friend of a friend needed carpenters. Yes, unlike a good portion of the population of Norfolk, I moved here for this area’s arts scene. I was straight out of college, and I expected to take my job as a scenic carpenter at the Virginia Stage Company, spend 1-2 years in Virginia, build up my resume, and then go somewhere else, somewhere where they were making Art– but then I fell in love. It didn’t happen overnight, it actually took every day of the 2 years of being a scenic carpenter, and 2 different trips away to upstate New York for summer-stock, but I fell in love with the Hampton Roads area. That was 10 years ago. Mark Warner was the Governor when I moved here, and became my Senator just when I was deciding that I wanted to stay here long term. 

A lot has changed since then. VSC promoted me to Assistant Technical Director in the middle of a recession. I kept going to other states in the summer (when there was no work here), and worked my way up to Technical Director at two separate theaters. The economy didn’t come back in the arts as quickly as we hoped. There were lots of pay cuts. In 7 years there were 4 rounds of pay cuts or wage freezes. The company was restructured around the time I decided it was time to move on. There are far fewer full time jobs in the arts in Hampton Roads than there were when I moved here in 2006. Most of the people I know work multiple part time jobs to get by. I currently have three- I’m the Artist Liaison for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, a Production Assistant for the Virginia Arts Festival, and occasionally I work a gig or two backstage at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. I also write for the Arts and Entertainment section of the Virginian Pilot to make a little extra money. I am a carpenter, and electrician, a lighting designer, a stage manager, a company manager, an event manager, and a hospitality manager, as well as a writer. I’m ultimately employable, and yet, I still rely on the ACA for my health insurance, because not one of these companies can afford to hire me full time or provide benefits. Over the last ten years I have worked with and for many of the Hampton Roads arts organizations. On top of that hustle to pay the bills, I find time to volunteer at the Little Theater of Norfolk, the Little Theater of Virginia Beach, writing for the AltDaily.com theater section, and occasionally I even answer phones for WHRO, our local NPR affiliate. 

Of all the places I have worked, and companies I have worked along side with, the majority of them rely on funding that comes in some way shape or form from the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA helps fund the Virginia Commission for the Arts. I have attached to this letter a short list of the companies my close friends and I have connected with in my time here which receive that funding. (Not attached to this article for privacy, but you can find a statewide list here.) NEA funding is also considered essentially a “seal of approval” for arts organizations. Nationally, every $1 put in by the NEA is matched by about $9 in private or other donations. In the state of Virginia, every $1 put forth by the Virginia Commission for the Arts is matched by $16 in other donations to those organizations. Without NEA funding, the companies that we are employed by will not be able to continue with their missions, and we will be among the unemployed. 

In 2010 when the state of Virginia considered abolishing the Virginia Commission for the Arts, we wrote and called our state representatives, and we let them know that if they cut funding for the arts in Virginia, we would be forced to move out of state for jobs, and they would lose not only intelligent, engaged citizens, but also the tax dollars that come with our paychecks. If arts funding is cut nationally, the 5 million people employed by the arts and culture industry, including 2 million full time artists, will be in danger of being forced to go to other countries for work, or losing their livelihoods altogether. We are some of your most fervent constituents when you support our interests, we are also some of the most vocal citizens, and we have the biggest audiences.

The NEA has a $148 million dollar appropriation. With that investment, America gets back a $742 billion dollar Arts and Culture industry- this encompasses 4.2% of GDP. All 435 congressional districts benefit from arts funding, but the biggest benefit culturally goes to rural areas, who don’t tend to have as many higher level donors, and might not be able to bring arts to their area without the NEA. The NEA revitalizes communities, and also supports military service members with their Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network- one of their clinical sites is at the Joint Expeditionary Base on Little Creek in Norfolk. Most importantly, the NEA, according to their own website, “creates an environment for the arts to bloom and thrive”. They protect, support, and document all culture in the United States: Native American culture, African American culture, our living heritage of regional folk cultures as well as what we refer to as “high art”. (https://www.arts.gov/)

They also provide project-specific grants to organizations around the country. In the time I have lived in Hampton Roads, I have seen the Virginia Arts Festival receive $35,000 to put on Bernstein’s Mass in 2010, the Virginia Stage Company receive a $40,000 grant that same year for the creation of the play The Comfort Team, which we premiered in 2012 (I was their Assistant Technical Director at the time- I worked on the set). The Virginia Symphony Orchestra was also  recommended in 2016 for a $10,000 grant for their Harmony Project, which would bring their music to religious organizations with minority populations in this area.

The arts are also proven to help in education. Many studies conclude that the arts help students with other core subjects, like math and reading. Arts programs have been cut back in our schools since I was a kid. Prior to attending college, my last art class had been in the 7th grade. My college preparatory school did not see it as an important part of an honor student’s curriculum. They required multiple science classes in a year, and expected that we would go on to work at NASA, or cure diseases. I stand here with you today, as my high school class valedictorian, with a passion for the arts that I had to discover on my own. A passion that I had to reach for, and that for the majority of my life, seemed just out of my grasp. I can only hope that my high school would be as proud of their unexpected arts major today as they were the day they sent me off to DC for a week with the Presidential Classroom program. 

Art is our culture. Art is what separates humans from other species. Art is viscerally important to human survival. I’m not one of the “coastal elite”. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania in a home that had a wood stove as our main source of heat. It doesn’t take any special type of person to be affected by art- we all have the need to express ourselves. Our founding fathers knew that for the health of a democracy, the citizens need to have the ability to put forth their ideas; so much so that freedom of speech is enshrined in the first amendment of our constitution. What better use for our government than to support the citizens as they do just that?

A photo from BA's visit to the FDR memorial in Washington DC.
A photo from my last visit to the FDR memorial.
“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”

Arts organizations need your help. If you find yourself in a place where you are able to support your favorite arts organization, they will appreciate it. Have tickets to a show that was cancelled? Consider donating the cost of the ticket to their operating costs rather than asking for a refund. Looking to support a museum? Consider becoming a member even if you can’t go in the building for a while. Can’t donate money right now? Know that everyone understands. We are all in the same boat, and we will get through this together.

You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Words by and photos courtesy of Penny Neef.

Life as we know it has changed. Some of us will have to adapt to survive. Some of us might even thrive. There’s time now to take a risk, try something new and explore a different path, as long as it is from home. 

This is a story about how two college roommates became roommates again, fifty years later during the Crisis of Covid-19. It’s a story about baby boomers, who are officially “old”, changing the way they live and work at astonishing speed. You can teach an old dog new tricks. You don’t even have to teach them.  They can figure it out by themselves.  

The silver haired guy I live with, aka Dave, and I moved to Hampton Roads seven years ago to be closer to our four fantastic grandchildren (and our daughter and son-in-law of course).  It was a great bonus that Dave’s college roommate, John, and his wife, Roz, had lived in Norfolk for 40+ years. 

Life is excellent in Hampton Roads. We love the thriving arts community.  We love the long and beautiful spring and fall seasons. We love that the Outer Banks is only an hour and a half away. We love that John and Roz often invite us to their beach house.

Then came the Coronavirus. Dave and I are in excellent health, but we are in the official “high risk” category.  We have a daughter who is a doctor back in Michigan who warned us early and warned us hard about staying home. We are mostly retired, so we stocked up (no hoarding I promise) and stayed home, except for walks around the Norfolk Botanical Garden and our neighborhood. 

In the meantime, John and Roz had a pregnant daughter with a husband and two small children in Singapore who were trying to get back to the States. They had been living in East Asia for a while and did not have a house here. They got a flight home on Friday, March 20. They had been social distancing for weeks in Singapore. No one in the family was sick, but they knew they would have to self-isolate for two weeks once they got back. That included self-isolating from John and Roz. No problem. John and Roz planned to meet them at the airport with two cars, toss the keys to one of the cars to them, and the young family would head straight to the beach house for their two-week quarantine.  

It was a good plan, but the timing was off by two hours.  Their flight arrived at midnight. The Outer Banks closed down to non-resident property owners at 10:00 pm on the 20th. Long story short, John and Roz gave up their house to their daughter and her family. John and Roz packed a few bags and moved in with us that night.

Their daughter and her family are doing fine. Everyone is healthy. Kind friends and family are delivering food to the door of John and Roz’s house in Norfolk and staying well away. John and Roz have settled into our guest room. The four of us are pretending we’re back at Kalamazoo College.

John and Roz are not retired. John is a partner in the law firm of Montagna Klein Camden LLP with offices in downtown Norfolk and Newport News. The firm has 7 attorneys, 13 employees and a busy caseload.

Roz owns the only yarn shop in Norfolk, Baa Baa Sheep on 22nd Street in Ghent. Roz is the only full-time employee. She has 3 ladies that work part-time. The shop is busy, with classes and knitters who sit up front, knit and talk. The shop is packed with gorgeous yarn of all kinds. Roz is always there, helping with a complicated pattern, ready to pick up a stitch that’s dropped, or suggesting the best yarn for the project at hand. 

Baa Baa Sheep is a community. Roz knows all her regular customers. She knows about their partners and their children. It’s a community where everyone has been told to stay home. You would think that wouldn’t be a problem for people who knit, but people who knit need supplies, and people who knit, enjoy knitting together. Roz needs to pay the rent on her brick and mortar small business. She misses her knitters and her knitters miss her.

Roz moved at head spinning speed to keep her business going, to accommodate her customers and to keep providing that sense of community. It was impressive. 

A knitting kit from Roz's store.
A Surprise Project Bag from Baa Baa Sheep.

Here is a timeline.

March 17 – 
Roz sends out an email to the 2,300 customers on her email list to let them know the shop would be closing at the end of the day on March 18.

March 18 – 
There’s a mini rush on Baa Baa Sheep as customers come in to do some yarn stash.

March 20 – 
Roz and John move in with us. 

March 21 – 
Roz sets up a Zoom and Stamps.com account and learns how to use both.

March 22 – 
We have a test run of Zoom from the guest bedroom to my bedroom, then Roz tries it with her family, her three daughters, three son-in-laws and her eight grandchildren.

March 23 – 
Roz sends an email to her customers announcing she will be in the shop from 10:30 – 2:30 Monday through Friday for curbside pickup of yarn and supplies or she will mail supplies anywhere in the United States. Her customers can call while she is in the shop. She is happy to text photos of yarns and patterns to purchase. She also announces her virtual knitting circle will meet via Zoom each Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30 – 4:30. Knitters can get Roz’s expert advice and chat together like they do in the shop.

March 24 – 
First Baa Baa Sheep virtual knitting circle is a great success.

April 3 – 
Roz figures everyone needs “a new project, a little surprise in the mailbox and a wee bit of chocolate” right about now. She announces “A Surprise Project Bag from Baa Baa Sheep.” Each bag contains a pattern, yarn and stitch markers. There are five pricing options. In an effort to help another small business in Ghent and to “sweeten” the deal, Roz includes a sweet treat from The Bonbonnier, a bakery and candy shop in Ghent, which has closed down their shop.

I popped into the Zoom knitting group the other day. The ladies and men are delighted to be back together, knitting away. I told the group I was writing about old dogs learning new tricks during the time of Covid-19. One of the salty ladies said, “You can’t call me an old dog, but you can call me a bitch.” Everyone laughed.

Roz won’t mind me calling her an old dog. She’s not only surviving, she’s thriving. She’s coming up with new ideas, figuring out how to make those new ideas work, and putting them in place as quickly as she can.  

If you find yourself with time on your hands right now, you might want to try knitting. Roz is in the shop, Monday through Friday from 10:30 – 2:30. You can call her at 757-802-9229. She can steer you towards some good YouTube videos to get you started. She will suggest a simple pattern and yarn that you can pick up curbside or she will mail you the supplies you need. Support a small business and discover a new hobby at the same time.

Then there is Roz’s husband, John. John’s new office is my guest bedroom. He’s up at 6:30 every morning and makes the commute to his “office” by 8:30. He emerges for lunch at noon and back into the bedroom he goes. This old dog had to learn a few new tricks too. An attorney has to sign lots of documents. John learned how to sign electronically. He misses talking to his clients in person, but he spends a great deal of time speaking to them on the phone.

John works from home in Penny's spare bedroom.

The closing of the courts will slow down his business eventually, but right now, he and most of his partners and employees are working from home.  As his administrative assistant said yesterday, from her house, “We are hitting on all cylinders, even with all this out of the office stuff.” 

We will be sad to see John and Roz go back to their own home, although I suspect they will be happy to be back with their daughter and her family. It’s kind of amazing what we can accomplish from the place we live when we are forced to stay where we live.

Mark Twain and the Future of Theatre – Virginia Stage Company

Words by Moriah Joy.
Image courtesy of Virginia Stage Company.

While social distancing may feel isolating, technology is being utilized like never before in order to keep our sense of community and human connection strong. This is especially true in the arts community as artists are finding new ways to come together and continue to tell stories. Platforms like Facebook Live, Google Chats, Zoom, and many more are creating spaces for artists to connect with their audiences and foster creative spaces. Ryan Clemens, the Lead Resident Theatre Artist at Virginia Stage Company, shared his thoughts on overcoming these challenges both in workshops and performing. 

This past Wednesday, Ryan hosted a monologue workshop to help local actors with auditions and expressed the unique experience of webcam classrooms. 

“It‘s interesting because… as artists it’s all about the life and the connection between the performer or teacher and the audience or students and the liveness that you experience with the online situation is tentative and delayed. It’s an artifice of sorts. It takes a little while to figure out the technical components as people come into the chatroom and… establish how things work. It takes a special kind of patience when there’s a lag or… someone’s microphone turns them into a robot voice. … Also the idea of communicating to one another without really truly being able to look at one another. In hosting a monologue workshop, I asked the students to look at their camera and imagine it as the face of the person their character is speaking to. So it works… and I’m pleased to say that that’s been a great lesson and a great discovery that we’ve been making. It’s just, it requires a little more patience and a little more time to figure out the idea of connection in that space.”

With each online platform, there are different levels of connection that can be facilitated. While Google Chat and Zoom allow you to see your audience, there’s a limitation on how many people you can directly see at one time. With Facebook Live, the only feedback from a performer’s audience are quick scrolling comments and emojis that flash across the screen.  This creates a completely different atmosphere compared to hearing the hushed (or not so hushed) whispers, laughs, tearful sniffles, or other reactions experienced during a live performance. Ryan is also going to be performing a version of his one man show about famous family member Sam Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, as a way to maintain community engagement despite his reliance upon webcams and technology. He expressed his curiosity to see this dynamic play out with his performance.

“Because when I perform as Mark Twain though it’s all a one man show, it’s a show where it’s one person communicating with a whole audience and I need that interaction, I need to hear their response, I need to feel their energy. It’ll be a unique experience to see how Mark Twain… is learning to communicate through the medium of the webcam.”

Ryan has had to change the dynamic for his show to fit the new medium. His typical one man show performance consists of him starting out as himself and changing into different characters in front of the audience, including versions of Mark Twain throughout the course of his life. Whereas for this version, he’s changed the story so that Mark Twain has been staying with Ryan Clemens and his wife and telling different stories. 

 Ryan explained that since he will not be performing on a stage, he has established his own setup to create a relaxed atmosphere for his performance. Since he has been performing the show for over a decade, he has collected enough memorabilia to act as the background.

“….books and photographs and souvenirs from different shows and gifts that people have given me…I’ve got all kinds of jumping frogs and Mark Twain dolls and I’ve got my rocking chair in that corner [where I’ll be performing.]”

Patrick Mullins, the head of the Public Works program, is also working with Ryan to make sure that the performance is accessible to many members of the community. 

“[Patrick]’s been working feverishly to figure out things like how to broadcast with captions for members of our audience who might be deaf or hearing impaired…It’s a whole different kind of technical job too.”

With having to get creative and find new avenues for artistic outlets, Ryan is still hopeful that while this may impact theatre temporarily, in offering time for people to create, the overall dynamic and the way that we view theatre will not change.

“I think the reason that theatre continues and the reason that we are still drawn to visit actors who are doing their work on the stage is because [of] that essential liveness and connection that film cannot provide and other mediums like the internet cannot provide. To be in the same space as a performer and hear those words and breathe that same air and make that real tangible connection is at the [core] of theatre. Since there’s nothing that can replace that I think we’ll always find that people are drawn together and tell stories in the same space. Hopefully there will come a time soon… where we will be able to get together again in our theatre spaces… There’s perhaps inspiration to be found at this time but I think more than that it’s an opportunity to practice patience and to reflect upon what’s important to us as people and as individuals.”

Ryan has been working with Virginia Stage Company for over ten years and has a BA in Theatre from Western Washington University and a MFA in Acting from Regent University.

Tune in Sunday, March 29th at 2pm to watch Meet Mark Twain: Live on Facebook Live, no registration is required. Ryan will also be hosting a monologue workshop for anyone 18 and older, registration is required.

For more information about future workshops and performances with Virginia Stage Company please visit their web page as they are updating their information daily.

Virtual Theater Offerings: Virginia Stage Company

Words by Moriah Joy.
Image courtesy of Virginia Stage Company.

Patrick Mullins currently works as the Director of Public Works at Virginia Stage Company, where he has worked for fourteen years in various positions. Virginia Stage Company is currently working on hosting various classes, workshops, and performances to help keep the theatre community alive during these difficult times. Patrick will be hosting a workshop focused on Shakespeare Friday March 27th, 2020 at 12pm. I had the pleasure of video chatting with Patrick to learn more about him and how the theatre community is evolving as we face uncertainty.

Moriah Joy: Was there a show that inspired you to pursue theatre professionally?

Patrick Mullins: Well, I grew up doing theatre in church. I think I didn’t see my first professional show until I was in high school… Les Mis. I was in the nosebleeds at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. I came into theatre more through a community viewpoint… church community. I enjoyed it and it just kinda grew. So I don’t know if there’s a first show that inspired me except I really liked performing, my MFA is in Acting but I really found my niche in the directing world. I just like storytelling. 

MJ: Where did VSC get the idea to host online workshops, the Shakespeare workshop in particular?

PM: Well, I’m a Shakespeare nerd which is different from a Shakespeare expert. I really love it. I grew up in a really conservative world. The church that I mentioned earlier, we were only allowed to use the King James version of the bible which is that same era. I really grew up with that kind of text in a different way. As the world is ground to a halt, we’re just looking for a way to connect and serve the community. If me nerding out with some people about Shakespeare sounds like a good time then I’m all for it. I think what’s brilliant about Shakespeare is, we know that he coined a language that didn’t exist before. But Herald Bloom also credits him with the creation of the human almost. As he has some of the earliest three dimensional characters that are complicated and life is complicated and there’s a lot of people wanting it to be easy. With such beautiful language and poetry that expresses some of that. I love that- for his time period- that it was super accessible and populous. I yearn for that kind of theatre again, personally. And so there’s a little bit of hope to be found in that we can get back to that.

MJ: What do you find is the most challenging aspect of Shakespeare/ Shakespearean text?

PM: The most challenging aspect is the perceived challenge, the language. That it gets difficult or hard and it does. It’s technically not archaic but it is out of the common vernacular. But I think once you apply some rules to it, it becomes a little more transparent. And once you understand a little more the rules or the rhetoric, the language construction, it makes a little more sense. It really was the spoken word of its day in many ways. 

MJ: What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned while working with VSC?

PM: I guess the core thing of what I believe about theatre is when a community comes together to make something it’s always bigger than something you could make on your own. That’s true when you’re working on a project with a group of professionals or through our Public Works program. Art is more than just craft or skill it includes cultural expertise and knowledge and personal experience and when people bring their experience together with a sense of openness to make something more you can achieve really amazing, beautiful things. I think that’s the thing, no matter how much I think I know some days, I’m humbled by the fact that there’s such bigger things out there and how transformative that can be. 

 MJ: Do you have any advice for artists as we navigate these uncertain times as our platform that is dependent upon in-person interaction?

PM: I think the advice is how do we take advantage of the moment as far as sharing what we have. It’s amazing how many Broadway stars and so many more are offering masterclasses for free and how people are sharing their experiences. I think when the world is reordering itself in times like these, it’s really difficult but it’s also where opportunity lies for a lot of people who are looking for it. And a lot of great art has come out of these times and a lot of people who are already making great art have found great opportunities. If there is a positive spin, it’s that. I have a hard time talking about it because we have so many friends who have lost contracts, and jobs, and gigs because of this. I also think there’s no pressure to do anything but take care of yourself at this moment and that’s okay too. 
For more information about the upcoming productions and workshops visit VSC’s Virtual Stage Page for more information. Workshops and new material are being added daily.

My Daughter, the Doctor

Words by and Photos Courtesy of Penny Neef

It’s a cliché, especially now, but life as we know it has changed for every single one of us. If your life hasn’t changed, you had better be making some changes now- for your safety and for ours.

Here’s a big change for me. I have a daughter, Haley, who lives far away in Michigan. We miss her like crazy, but she visits here and my husband and I visit there. She’s good about calling a few times a week to tell us about her family, the news at work, and her two cute French Bulldogs.

Since Covid-19 reared its ugly head, she calls every single day. She’s not calling to tell us about her Frenchies or the crappy weather in Michigan. Nope, she’s calling to make sure we’re still healthy. She’s calling to find out what our plans are for the day, which means she’s calling to check we are not going out and doing anything stupid. 

Haley Neef with her frenchie dogs!
You didn’t think we would mention puppies at a time like this and NOT show them to you, did you? -the Editor

Now that I think about it, I might have done something similar to her when she was in her “formative” years. Haley has turned into the parent, which means we have turned into the children.  

To be fair, we have another daughter, Lindsey, who lives right up the road. She’s been telling me the same thing, “STAY HOME!!” Lindsey will not even let me get near my grandkids. I moved from Michigan to Virginia just to be near those grandkids. I guess I just have to be patient and safe.

Here’s the difference. Lindsey is an attorney. She is smart and a whiz with numbers. She understands the whole “flattening the curve” thing. I will listen to her, but Haley is a doctor. Haley is a doctor at a large university (Go Blue!). My daughter the doctor is following this pandemic very closely. She treats children who are critically ill, children who are transplant patients, children who are immunocompromised. It is her passion and her business. Dr. Haley knows her business.

The following is an actual conversation I had with Haley last Tuesday, March 17, which seems about a year ago now:

Haley – What are you and dad up to today? (she’s making sure we’re OK and not doing anything stupid) 

Me – We’re going out, we need to do a few things. (I’m going a little crazy, been in the house for the last 2 days)

Haley – Like what?
Me – I need a pedicure.
Haley – NO!
Me – Dad needs a haircut.
Haley – NO!
Me – We need some groceries.
Haley – OK, but go early and get in and out fast. Wash your hands! (I used to tell her and her sister that after they had been outside playing with worms.)
Me – Love you.
Haley – Love you too mom.

Dr. Haley cancelled her vacation this week so that she can be at the hospital and cover for one of the doctors who is immunocompromised. Dr. Haley calls us EVERY morning to check up on us.

Here is a conversation from the very next day, Wednesday, March 18:

Haley- What’s going on today?
Me- We’re in the car …..
Haley(interrupts) – NO!!!!
Me (continues calmly) – …going to the Botanical Garden for a walk.
Haley – Oh, that’s OK. Have fun.

A walk outside is good for the body and good for the soul. It is also doctor approved. I wrote about my walk and the measures they have in place at Norfolk Botanical Garden right here.

I’m officially old. We have zero health problems, but my husband and I are in that high-risk, senior citizen category. I have to start listening to both my daughters, who probably know more than I do. Big change.

Haley and Lindsey Neef as kids playing outside.

Dr. Haley calls every day, usually on her way into the hospital. As I write this, Michigan has gone into official lockdown. I expect Virginia will do the same soon. We’ve been in lockdown for a while, because I listen to my daughter. You should listen to Dr. Haley too.

I couldn’t be prouder of the daughters we raised who are a little bossy, but then, so is their mom. Love you so much, Haley. Love you so much, Lindsey.

I told Haley the other day that this may be the biggest battle of her life, but she’s ready for it. Love and good thoughts to all the health care workers out there. Listen to Dr. Haley.

Postscript, March 24 – 
Dr. Haley called us on her way home from work last night. She knew we were planning our weekly run to Kroger this morning, during official “senior citizen hour” from 7:00 – 8:00 am:

Haley – You still going to Kroger tomorrow?  Wear a mask, take the wipes, get in and out fast. Wash your hands like there’s no tomorrow when you get home. DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FACE!!
Me – Yes ma’am.

This is my new normal. Yours too.

Walk It Out, Smell the Roses, Stay Safe @ Norfolk Botanical Gardens

Words and Photos by Penny Neef.

Social distancing, self- isolation, flattening the curve. It’s happened so fast.  I had my hair cut ten days ago without a worry in my head. Just in the nick of time as it turns out. My daughter, the doctor, calls from the University of Michigan every morning to check up on us and find out where we’re going and what we’re doing. More on those calls in another article.

There is one place besides the grocery store and our own backyard that has been daughter/doctor approved. That is the Norfolk Botanical Garden. They are still open and welcoming visitors. The Norfolk Botanical Garden is art and natural beauty at its finest. It is right here in our own backyard. It is our backyard, if we had 175 acres with more than 175 varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas, 3000 rose bushes, maybe a million daffodils, an enchanted forest, a cute little veggie garden, 16 miles of trails, a lake and turtles.

Michael Desplaines, President and CEO of Norfolk Botanical Garden, says, “There’s lots of room. People can spread out. You’re never in close contact with anyone here.”

The silver-haired guy I live with and I were there just the other day. We love the NBG. We have been members since the first day we visited, seven years ago, shortly after we moved to Hampton Roads. I call it my happy place. Who doesn’t need a happy place right now?

A stump seat surrounded by pink flowers at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens.

The Norfolk Botanical Gardens is being smart. You must buy your ticket or membership online to get in. You stay in your car down the long driveway to enter the gardens. There is a booth at the gate. The friendly attendant reaches out and scans your ticket- no physical contact. All events and classes have been cancelled. The main building and gift shop are closed. They have left several restrooms around the garden open. Bring your own snacks or even a picnic lunch. For a complete rundown you can check ou the NBG’s “Commitment to Safety”. 

Those 175 acres of natural beauty are open people. The garden is beautiful anytime of the year. There is always something blooming, but this time of the year may be my favorite time of the year at NBG. The cherry trees are blooming. Thousands of daffodils line the banks of the canal. It smells like spring, like rebirth, like renewal. It smells like hope.

The azaleas are just beginning their spectacular bloom. The NBG was started as a WPA project in 1938. It began as an azalea garden, with over 200 African American women and 20 men clearing the land and planting four thousand azaleas and two thousand rhododendrons. The azaleas are my favorite part of the NBG. Take a stroll through the Enchanted Forest in about two weeks and you will be walking through walls of red, pink, purple and white azalea blossoms towering over your head. It is one of Mother Nature’s greatest works of art.

My grandchildren love Norfolk Botanical Garden too. It’s a place to get outdoors and just run. It’s a place to follow a path through the woods. It’s a place to spot turtles. There is a giant sandpile to play on, bring wipes.

A LEGO spider dangles from a tree at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens.

From now until June 7th, there is a special exhibit around the garden, “Nature Connects – Art with LEGO Bricks”. Thirteen larger than life LEGO sculptures are scattered throughout the garden. There is a giant LEGO spider hanging from a tree made of thousands of LEGOs, a gorgeous peacock, and a family of deer. Each sculpture, by LEGO artist Sean Kenney, has a sign indicating the number of LEGOs involved. It’s a lot.

This June, the “Flamazing Flamingos” will be in full bloom throughout the garden. These giant flamingo topiaries will be made up of over 80 plants.  They will be planted and maintained by the flamazing gardeners at NBG. 

The gardeners and volunteers are still at work all over the gardens. I had a lovely socially distanced conversation with a volunteer master gardener in the vegetable garden the other day. We maintained our distance and talked about the right time to plant kale, spinach and lettuce seeds. That would be right now. I’m still getting used to these mild Virginia springs.

Did I mention that you can bring your dog along for a walk through the garden on Sundays? There is fresh water available throughout the garden but they ask that you BYOB – bring your own bowl for Fido.

A path with trees at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens.

Now is the time to become a member at the Norfolk Botanical Garden.  Memberships are a great deal. For all the details on membership options, you can click here

It’s good to get to the garden early, when there are less people around. We only passed one other person in the Enchanted Forest area the other morning. The garden opens at 9:00 am daily. Of course, do not go if you are self-isolating for any reason.  

If you need to get out, walk a little or a lot, enjoy the colors and the smells, Norfolk Botanical Garden is a perfect place. I promise you it will soothe your soul.

Remember, at this time, you must purchase your tickets or membership online here BEFORE heading out to the gardens. 

What’s 20% of Nothing?

Words and Picture by Melissa Corrigan.

On the normally loud, boisterous evening of St. Patty’s Day, a small group of service industry veterans stood huddled around the fire pit at local restaurant and bar, Torch Bistro, in the Chelsea district. They wore Chucks and Vans, each sporting the T-shirt of their respective employer, clutched PBR tallboys, and talked quietly while Dropkick Murphys played in the background.

Any other year, this would be a huge tip night for them. But this year, they’re out of work. 

As coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has swept across the nation, restaurants have been faced with tremendously difficult decisions. Close or not close? Limit service to take-out/delivery options only? Major consequences hung in the balance…the health and safety of employees and patrons vs. the annihilation of already slim profit margins and their employees’ livelihoods.

Ultimately, most restaurants have closed their dining rooms or closed altogether, and hundreds of service industry workers have been put out of work. Although national and state legislation is being passed at record pace to ensure these affected individuals won’t be evicted or face utility shut-off, these individuals still need to eat and have a basic standard of living for themselves and their families. Since traditional fundraisers are typically held live, that’s simply not an option.

We are, however, living in the new digital age. Bartenders and servers can now accept ‘tips’ via cash apps and PayPal, ensuring they can continue putting food on their tables and maintain their households. A brilliant and currently anonymous employee at the Center for Ethics and Policy in Pittsburgh created a simple Google form for the Pittsburgh Virtual Tip Jar. This individual had the foresight to include simple instructions for replicating the model in any city, which we’ve done for Hampton Roads.

Our Hampton Roads Virtual Tip Jar is now live, and the list of bartenders and servers is growing by the minute. You can find your favorite drink slinger or burger server on the list and send them some financial assistance directly via Venmo or Paypal. While local and national nonprofits are working as fast as possible to set up specific funds and application and distribution processes, those endeavors take time and our service industry friends need cash now

Below are two links: the first is the direct link to the Hampton Roads Tip Jar. The second is a document with a list of resources, including some national funds and projects, for restaurant employees who have found themselves suddenly under or unemployed.

Hampton Roads Tip Jar

Hampton Roads Service Industry Resource List

Many restaurants in Hampton Roads are still offering take-out and delivery options that may keep these businesses afloat through the coming days and weeks, but the vast majority of bartenders and servers find themselves with no income, effective immediately. Please consider looking up your favorite server, or finding a friend on the list, and sending them some direct assistance. 

Hampton Roads is a diverse, vibrant, and generally close-knit community, especially those in the service industry. In times like these, all we truly have is each other…and just try to figure out 20% the value of a friendship or a neighbor’s financial stability. Tip now!